Last week I visited Jacksonville Zoo, which boasts “more to see, more to zoo”. And it certainly delivered, with a broad range of exhibits including some very special ones that I’d never seen before. A particularly unique exhibit was Wild Florida, a collection of species native to the state. I discovered just how big alligators are (which only confirmed my decision not to go anywhere near a river during my time here) and caught a glimpse of a manatee as it glided underwater. Manatees are the state marine mammal of Florida but threats such as collisions with boats, habitat loss and the devastating red tide have now made them endangered.
In response to these threats, Jacksonville Zoo is in the process of making the first manatee critical care centre in northeast Florida. This will allow more injured animals to be rescued and cared for, and minimise travel distance to other centres such as the ones in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. To make the experience as natural as possible for the manatees, they have a very large tank, which can only be viewed from one side. They are only seen occasionally when they swim close to the tank’s edge, giving them much needed privacy.
Elsewhere on the site was the Emerald Forest Aviary, where I met my new favourite bird: the roseate spoonbill. Native to Florida, this extraordinary wading bird is candy floss pink in colour and sports a magnificent bill that it waves from side to side underwater to sift through the mud. There was a group of them in the aviary, perched on branches overhanging a deep, dark pond. I positioned myself to put this dark pond behind a particular bird who had stood beside some very photogenic foliage. After just a little editorial tweaking, I was pleased with the dramatic result.
Although I always love seeing the star animals of the zoo, some of my best moments from the day were the wild individuals that had snuck in uninvited. As usual, I fell in love with some new lizards, including one that posed for me with an over-the-shoulder glance.
However, the most incredible moment came just before I left. I was wandering past the lions and admiring the wildflowers that were attracting all sorts of butterflies and dragonflies. Then, I saw something larger than an invertebrate zooming around and was thrilled to discover it was a hummingbird!
I fumbled to get my camera ready, and for a while took lots of blurry pictures of flowers. Eventually, I got used to the hummingbird’s pattern of flying and managed to capture the animal in frame. I stood watching it for ages, as usual receiving looks from passers-by wondering what I was so interested in. For me though, it was an amazing sight and one of those perfect surprises.